My dance partner, Kelsey Burns, and I began rehearsing together both in ladies latin ballroom high heels (3.5 inches to be exact) for the first time in June of 2015. My journey with her has created new discoveries in my body and helped me gain a whole new perspective on how we relate to each other. So many feelings to share with you.
The latin and rhythmic ballroom technique is tough physically no doubt. It takes a lot of strength and a tremendous amount of endurance and stamina. You have to be able to move at hyper speed with the sharp, quick and syncopated movements of the uptempo dances (chacha, samba, swing, paso double, jive, mambo) and yet have the same ability, in slow motion, to suspend and sustain long extended movements of the slow tempo dances (rumba, bolero). Ballroom dancers because of this tend to develop lean, tone muscles with flexibility similar to those of runners, swimmers and ice skaters. I mean we are athletes after all. There is a reason why they title the ballroom competition dance world “Dancesport”.
The man and the female train the same but just as different roles. The leader, the man, is set as the frame for the woman to be displayed on exhibition; sort of a blank canvas for the women to be painted on, as the female follows his lead. Both male and female equally work hard to play their role and must be sensitive to each others' connection as not to overpower the other. Both are on an even playing field. This was my perspective of the ballroom practice as a male dancer wearing a closed toed shoe flat footed with a wide heel no more than an inch and half. Now that I have been wearing the same shoe as my female partner, that viewpoint has completely changed.
Taking the modern day role (and traditional) of the female in latin ballroom dance, wearing high heels as a part of my practice, has now made the technique more than tough; grueling. It’s a bittersweet, love-hate process. A constant struggle between confidence and insecurity when executing the movement. At times, rehearsing our choreography in high heels makes me feel stronger because my quadriceps, calves, inner thighs and ankles work significantly harder, for the most part just to maintain stability. Besides, there are many technical elements (i.e. turn-out, foot placement, extension, etc.) that increases in difficulty due to the elevated, narrow platform. It gives me a sense of hard work well accomplished because it’s so challenging and I like developing new physical strengths, yet, it is in this same case that I feel weakened. There is no time where you can actually relax the weight fully into the floor when in latin high heels.
This has made me (or anyone) susceptible to many injuries: lower back pain, muscle spasms, spinal issues, tendonitis (knee, hip in particular), foot and ankle injuries. If I don’t pay full attention to how I support my body, for instance, holding the core so as not to over arch the lower spine or maintaining proper engagement in the quadricep and inner thigh so as not to hyperextend the knee joint and hamstrings, I would run into trouble. My body has literally been made more vulnerable; a vulnerability I had rarely felt before wearing non-high heels and ironically I feel more tenacious than ever... hence the love-hate relationship.
This duality of fear and confidence has also brought up some interesting emotional discoveries. As a man in a male dominated society, I have been always raised to conduct myself as direct and solid as possible. Dancing in high heels has allowed me not to be constrained to only those qualities as I am now encouraged in high heels to rise and float above the ground and find a circular and swiveling manner when even just walking for ease. It is important to know too that in no way have I compromised my “masculinity” for I am even more so solid because I have more pressure in the foot and I’m keenly aware of my direction more than ever so that I don’t fall or trip, or do something embarrassing.
There, too, is a new access to my sexuality that I’m not sure is either feminine or masculine (or perhaps neither) but in any case is definitely different that being flat footed. It could be because of the fact that my pelvis and spine are constantly shifting and feel more mobile. It's enhanced all my senses. I question why society doesn't allow men to explore this fluid, serpentine manner of physicality unless classified as homosexual. I feel that people focus too much on sexual orientation when really it should be about exploring the sensual capacity that is in us despite your sexual orientaion.
Perhaps though the most important discovery dancing in high heels with my dance partner has been my increase in sensibility. I understand what she feels because I too am literally experiencing her same physical journey. We are on the same path communicating through the same device. Because my line of balance no longer is as wide, I can no longer be a full supportive object since I am more easily thrown off balance. She now needs to be a lot more self-supportive and hold her own weight which requires more strength on her end. In fact, because I am more vulnerable, there are times when I'm leading in high heels where she is actually supporting me as she follows my lead and allows me to rely on her to help. This I feel is the essence of dancing with a partner. It feels more real to me this way. We both share equal responsibility from each other where both experience supporting and being supported rather than either of us being one or the other. It is a new relationship indeed symbiotic.
First rehearsal with my dance partner, Kelsey, practing flat foot and I wearing the heels to understand each other's perspective. My feet were much more damaged as you can see...
Kelsey and I were asked by choreographer, Cecilia Marta, to be in a short dance film presentation she was creating in collaboration with Spinkick Productions, directed by Brian Thomas. She wanted the men and women both in heels and asked us to put together a duet of us dancing in high heels that she would feature. It was the first time we performed and were filmed dancing together with this new symbiosis. We choreographed our duet so that we kept the movement of Rhythmic Ballroom technique as the dance style and maintained the traditional roles of the man as leader and the female as follower. The only modern twist is that we both are wearing the same high heels. The reaction of the creative team when we demonstrated our piece in rehearsal was enthusiastic. We were told that what we did was unique and something never seen before. Wes Veldink, the stylist of the project, said to us that we kept the traditional masuline and feminine roles despite the affect of the heels. It's refreshing to see men tap into there sensuailty in heels without it being portrayed as hyper feminine. Wes chose costuming that really accentued this idea. Kelsey and I were both in black and white with legs covered and backs exposed but with a slight adrogynous spin. Take a look!